A sure sign of the end of autumn, the beginning of winter is the disappearance of flies. But there is always one fly left. No-one knows for what he or she is looking but everyone knows that he – or she – is (insert favourite expletive) annoying, indestructible and buzzes without cease, especially at night. And this fly arrives just as the tidy housewife, (sorry 'house-person'), has removed all the hideous glue strips that wreaked such havoc on flies all summer.
This one fly is always to be found in the company of human beings, at breakfast, in the bathroom, or in the sitting room where the same human is peacefully getting irritated by the stupidities offered by television companies. Irritation piles upon annoyance when the daft, dazed insect drops into the soothing evening drink and adds frantic paddling to its insistent buzz. The squeamish will probably pour the whole drink down the sink, the more parsimonious will spend a few moments with a teaspoon saving the fly's life and the contents of their glass. Both will miss the best part of an episode of whatever they were watching. It is, of course, worse for those who are reading and absent mindedly reach for their drink. Since words are so much more absorbing than pictures they may not spot the fly until it touches their lips. Beurk.
But the most annoying habit of autumn's last fly is its insistence on exploring the darkening bedroom of humans trying to get to sleep. Like most flying insects it aims incessantly for any form of light, even an alarm clock with luminescent hands is not spared. Again and again it beats itself against this last sign of warmth. The irate human, sleepless with fury, attempts to swat it. But this is a dangerous activity for the fly cannot always be accurately located and hitting your best bedside lamp with a rolled up copy of some respectable newspaper will do more damage to lamp and paper than to the fly. Even if you do not fall over your slippers.
And what do you do when the fly has got stuck in one of those formerly fashionable sixties Japanese paper lantern lampshades? You can switch the light off but then the insect appears to use its buzz as an echo locator to find a way out. This can take an eternity, or so it seems. (Eternity is the length of time whose duration cannot be shortened by the person suffering it – my definition.)
The plastic fly swatters made in multitudinous hideous colours, probably in China, are more accurate instruments of death than rolled up newspapers or flicked napkins. The present ones that we have are hexagonal and have very flexible stems. The head, or killer end is decorated with a grinning face which may or may not terrify the fly in its last few moments of life – if you are accurate. But flies fly very fast and rest in places you do not wish to hit even with the most flexible of fly swatters. The best you can do is to chase the fly from the place it wishes to be to a place where you can safely – safely for you and your goods – swat it. Perhaps these latest fly killer models were designed with the encouragement of the late Chairman Mao who had very decided views on flies. He preferred them dead and enrolled the entire population of China in this ambition.
A fly swatter is, of course, very different to a fly whisk. The first, as I have just mentioned, comes in awful plastic colours. The latter can be a thing of beauty, an elegant weapon, used to distance the fly from the human face. The human in this case was often a very important person, especially in his (or her) own opinion. Somewhere in the attic we have a couple of antique fly whisks: carved ivory or bone handles garnished with white horse hair for use by the important person him or herself. They are very efficient at distancing flies. I have tried them, but they are not killer weapons at all. It is difficult to concentrate on a text whilst moving horse hair rhythmically before your face.
When houses are closed up for any length of time during the autumn to spring transition, it will be seen that the 'one fly' is a myth. There are actually numerous flies but they only show themselves individually. And humans cannot tell one fly from another. Hence the idea that there is 'one' fly all over the house. However, whilst they may manifest themselves singly, flies die collectively, usually on window sills. There is is a splendid piece of doggerel verse in the Penguin 'Verse and Worse' collection which – along with the fly whisk – is somewhere up in our attic, but unlike the fly whisk I could not find it. The rhyme, to the best of my memory, ends:
'but flies is wise,
when winter comes,
Except for that one keeping you awake at night.